Detail of "Men of God, Men of Nature," by Laleh Mehran, mixed-media installation.
Detail of "Men of God, Men of Nature," by Laleh Mehran, mixed-media installation.

At the Denver Art Museum, change is good

Right now there are, by my count, a total of nineteen shows up in the Denver Art Museum's Hamilton Building and across the street in the Gio Ponti tower. But even a professional show-goer like myself can hardly be expected to keep up, especially with all of the other attractions around town to consider. And I regret that I can't give more than a plug to such worthy DAM attractions as Herbert Bayer 1900-1928: The Bauhaus and Pre-Bauhaus Years (through July 7, 2013) or Texture and Tradition: Japanese Woven Bamboo (though July 28, 2013) or even Garry Winogrand: Women Are Beautiful (through September 30). Instead I'll focus on a quartet of visual treats, every one of which is well worth taking in.

My most urgent recommendation concerns Yves Saint Laurent: the Retrospective (which closes July 8), in the Anschutz and the Martin and McCormick galleries, which was done in collaboration with Fondation Pierre Bergé — the foundation operated by Saint Laurent's life partner, who is obviously the keeper of the late couturier's flame. I have little interest in fashion — as anyone who has ever seen me could attest — so I had put off seeing it, which I now regret. It's staggering how much of the designer's work has been preserved by Bergé — not just the beautiful dresses, jackets, pants and accessories, but also, amazingly, hundreds of notebook pages covered with swatches of fabrics.

The scrupulously curated exhibit was put together by Florence Müller, who follows Saint Laurent's career from his first days at Dior in the late 1950s and early '60s through to his final works in the 1990s. In between are focused sections that zero in on special types of clothing, such as evening gowns or edgy tuxedos for women. Of special interest — at least to me — are the many things Saint Laurent did that refer to paintings, like the cocktail dress that's based on a Mondrian or the unbelievably luxurious Van Gogh-inspired sequined and beaded jackets. Saint Laurent and Bergé were big-time art collectors, so these references came honestly to the designer.


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The exhibition design, created by Nathalie Criniére, is also spectacular, and it sets a new standard for shows in Denver. In fact, I was almost lightheaded at times in the dimly lit warren of spaces and needed to catch my breath as I entered the gallery filled with tiers of mannequins wearing those stunning tuxedos surrounding me and rising above my head everywhere I looked.

More modest in its appeal — though still enormously appealing — is Theodore Waddell's Abstract Angus (through December 2), which examines the work of a Montana-based artist who crosses Western art — depictions of cattle — with abstract expressionism.

With the increasing interest in modern and contemporary Western art, the show, curated by the DAM's Thomas Smith, is perfectly timed.

Waddell was born in Billings in 1941 and later attended East Montana College, where he studied with Montana's premier modernist, Isabelle Johnson. In the early '60s, he went to New York to study at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, which pushed him still further in the modernist direction — a move, not incidentally, that flew in the face of the realist and impressionist styles of painting that dominated Western art.

From the entrance to the Gates Family Gallery, visitors are confronted by "Monida Angus," a mural so big that you can't see it all until you get inside. Running across four large panels, the painting, which was specially created for this show, depicts cattle grazing in the foreground of a mountain range. Or at least that's what it looks like from across the room, because when you get up close, the cattle and scrub and even the mountains and sky are nothing more than rough and heavy smears of paint. This is true of all the Waddells here. Some of them are almost non-objective, with hardly any landscape referents at all. For instance, "Motherwell's Angus" (from the DAM's collection), made up solely of a scruffy, dirty-white color field over which black dashes have been randomly inserted — the dashes standing in for cows on a snow-covered plain.

It's landscapes of a different type — or would that be different types? — that make up Scapes (through November 25), the handsome exhibit in the Works on Paper gallery. Put together by DAM adjunct curator Julie Auger, the show looks at various approaches to the landscape tradition by a roster of blue-chip modern and contemporary artists, with a particular focus on pop art. In this group are several standouts, especially the drawing "Study for Moonscape Banner," by pioneering pop star Roy Lichtenstein; in it, a moon over water is rendered as though it were a comic. Also representing classic pop is a crayon-and-watercolor piece by Claes Oldenburg titled "(Proposed Colossal Monument): Nose as Tunnel Entrance. Waldo Tunnel, Marin County, California." Representing the West Coast variant of pop is the handsome "Neighborhood Ridge," by Wayne Thiebaud, a study in colored pencil.

Of course, pop isn't the only style included in Scapes; there are also several examples of the representational revival of recent decades, including a Richard Artschwager and a Roxy Paine. Holding particular appeal for those of us who live in Colorado is Christo's gorgeous mixed-media drawing "Over the River Project for Arkansas River, State of Colorado." The piece depicts a section of the proposed conceptual landscape intervention in which sheets of translucent fabric will be stretched over the river in intermittent places. Those who are opposed to the project, organized as Rags Over the Arkansas River, are still determined to stop it from happening. Here's hoping they fail in their efforts.

Finally, for something completely different, there's Laleh Mehran: Men of God, Men of Nature (through February 17), in the Fuse Box. It was curated by the DAM's senior Modern and Contemporary curator, Gwen Chanzit. On the wall outside of the space, Mehran has installed pierced flat white plastic shapes that recall beehives. Periodically through the run of the show, she is staging performances in which she asks museum visitors simple questions; their answers determine where individual elements are placed.

Mehran, who teaches at the University of Denver, was born in Iran, though she has spent most of her life in this country. Using ambient noise and lighting inside the Fuse Box, she has created an installation anchored by a huge black cube that is ominous in its size and color. The cube refers to the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred site, a cube-shaped granite structure in Mecca that is draped in black cloth, and toward which Muslims kneel and pray.

On the sides of the cube, Mehran has incised lines that are actually maps of different parts of the world. These lines can barely be seen in the dim light of the gallery. Around on the fourth side — the back side, as it happens — is a short flight of stairs that lead to an entrance into the interior of the cube. Inside, the walls are lined and the ceiling is defined by plastic lattice patterns that are loosely based on similar patterns seen in Islamic architecture. The patterns are made using computer technology that forms and cuts the plastic. This technique — in which high-tech methods are used to create actual, not virtual, objects — is called trans-media. But there are virtual elements in the Mehran installation as well, in the form of video screens with abstract shapes advancing or receding.

When former DAM director Lewis Sharp was pushing to have the Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton constructed, the goal was to provide the institution with enough extra space to constantly be able to present temporary exhibits alongside the mostly static displays in the permanent collection. That goal has been realized in spades under Sharp's successor, Christoph Heinrich, who has turned the DAM into an exhibition-driven place.


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